In April, Uttar Pradesh conducted the panchayat polls in four phases. Appointments for 8.69 lakh seats was to be decided at four levels: gram panchayat, gram pradhan, block panchayat and zila panchayat. The number of voters: 11.5 crores.
It was a massive exercise. As usual, it fell upon public sector staffers – those working with schools, banks, civic and state bodies – to execute it. Polling duty is part of their job. But this time, many were nervous about it, for there was a surge of covid19 infections in Uttar Pradesh from the first week of April. Already, photos had emerged of long queues and unruly crowds scrambling to file their nominations, with scant masking or social distancing.
The first phase was held on 15 April. Within days, there were reports of dozens of school teachers falling sick and testing positive for covid19. On 29 April, Uttar Pradesh Prathamik Shikshak Sangh, which claims to represent nearly 5 lakh teachers, compiled a list of 706 teachers who had died after polling duty. In a letter addressed to the Election Commission (EC) and the state government, it appealed that the ballot count, scheduled to be held on 2 May, be postponed by a few weeks. A day before, another teachers’ union, the Uttar Pradesh Shikshak Mahasangh, had made a similar request.
They never received a reply.
On 28 April, RR Tripathi, deputy chief of Uttar Pradesh Prathamik Shikshak Sangh, got a text from his Anuj Pandey, a primary school teacher from Siddharthnagar.
“Sahab, my mother and my wife are in a bad state since the election duty,” Pandey wrote. “I can barely walk myself. I have never shied away from work but please let me take an off for the counting day [on 2 May]. I might just be able to save my family then. Otherwise, I’ll never be able to forgive myself.”
“Main to hil gaya (It shook me up),” Tripathi recalls. The two had been friends for a decade. Two of Pandey’s family members had died in the past year; one to covid19, another to cancer. Pandey was among the polling officers when his district went to polls on 26 April. He had been feverish since the very next day.
“I got a fever after I returned home from polls,” Pandey told Mint over phone on 30 April. He sounded groggy; his voice fading towards the end of a sentence. “My body started hurting and my family got infected too.” His mother had started struggling to breathe, so Pandey had driven to a hospital in the neighbouring Gorakhpur, former Parliamentary constituency of UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Only, there was no oxygen available anywhere.
Pandey ended the call in a few minutes saying he wasn’t feeling too well. He hasn’t respond to calls or texts since. The next day, Tripathi informed Mint that Pandey’s oxygen levels had dropped to 80, his mother’s to 40. He had to go 50km away to Maharajganj to scour for an oxygen cylinder.
On 1 May, Uttar Pradesh's caseload surged to 12.5 lakh with 34,372 cases reported in the previous 24 hours. The government’s and election commission’s belligerence was a “crime against humanity”, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi tweeted; Samajwadi Party leader Mayawati demanded for financial support and a government job for the family members of the polling staffers who died of covid19.
The same day, the Supreme Court heard a plea asking for the ballot-count to be postponed. "You want to proceed despite all odds? Heavens will not fall if counting is deferred by three weeks," NDTV reported a bench of judges saying.
The UP Election Commission (EC) told the court, “We have taken a decision to go ahead.” They would follow all protocols: oximeter tests, crowd prevention, social distancing and sanitization.
No victory rallies would be allowed either, the Supreme Court said. Then it ruled in the EC’s favour.
What is happening in UP is nothing less than a crime against humanity and the SEC UP is playing along.— Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (@priyankagandhi) May 1, 2021
Ordinarily, the Panchayat polls aren’t high on the list of priorities for political parties. These involve for grassroot-level representatives, their voter-base ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. “Usually, after the polls take place, political parties buy off those elected and declare them as their own candidates,” says Sharat Pradhan, journalist and political commentator based in Lucknow.
This time, the election commission had asked the parties to declare their candidates in advance. The outcome of the elections is now being projected as a referendum on the parties’ sway in the state. “The [BJP] is going to contest the panchayat elections strongly,” Vijay Bahadur Pathak, in-charge of panchayat elections for the party, told The New Indian Express in March. It had even set up a line-up of around 15,000 programmes with workers participation in booth level seminars, kisan panchayats, district-level meetings for panchayat polls. The BJP is the strongest contender, too, Pradhan reckons. “The opposition in UP is dead.”
Migrant workers in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, and so on, are known to return to their villages to vote or campaign for polls. At times, some candidates pay them to return. By April, the second wave of covid19 was ravaging major cities across India.” But when the workers returned to their hometowns, it was rare to find anyone being screened or sent into an isolation facility,” says Pradhan.
None of this was unexpected, say experts. In March, the election commission issued a set of guidelines for covid19 appropriate behaviour. But given the sheer number of people involved, violations were inevitable, says Dr GP Singh, faculty at Lucknow’s King George Medical University and former president of the city’s Indian Medical Association (IMA).
“At least 25-30% people from cities go to villages from cities for elections. They vote, campaign door-to-door; now there will be victory celebrations, losers will get involved in [violent] clashes. Suppose I am a carrier, I have infected 10 others. They will spread it to a hundred others.”
In Uttar Pradesh, he adds, the healthcare systems are woefully inadequate. Most villages don’t have hospitals; the RT-PCR testing centres are only at the district headquarters. According to the official figures, over 3 lakh people are active covid19 patients as of 1 May. To top it off, several media reports have found under-reporting the actual numbers in various districts, with the Allahabad High Court saying on 28 April that UP government’s complanency in handling the second wave was an “open secret”. The real figures, says Dr Singh, were around 10 lakh and likely to hit 25 lakh towards the end of the month.
“Lakhs will die in May,” he says. “But in our country, we’re always in denial mode. We don’t accept what is advised, what’s good for us. Aisa sochte hai ke hum amrit peekar aaye hai. (We seem to believe we’re immortal.)”
The panchayat polls were originally scheduled for January 2021. When they were delayed, the Allahabad High Court, directed the state election commission to hold it by 30 April. The EC had issued a set of guidelines and claimed teams of officers would be deployed to ensure they would be followed.
But as the polls drew closer, it was clear that the guidelines made no difference. Shweta Dubey, a professor at Subhash Chandra Bose Inter College in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad), noticed it during her training sessions in the second week of April. “There were thousands of people crammed in the training hall,” she recalled. “There was no distancing, no sanitization.”
Dubey was the polling officer at a booth in Sodhiya village. A day before the polls, most staffers stay overnight at the ballot collection centre before setting off to their respective booths. When she went to the Chief Development Officer to file an exemption from the stay – she has a child to look after – she found the same situation. “There was crowding, scuffles... Bheed ko cheerke andar jana tha, aur cheerke bahar aana tha. (You had to fight your way in and out).”
Ravindra Dixit, a teacher at Parsauni Composite Vidyalaya, was the Presiding officer at his booth in Sitapur. “They stuffed us in trucks, the kinds used to carry salt,” he recalls. “We sat on ballot boxes on our way to the polling booths.” At the booth, there was no electricity, nor any arrangements for food or water. 812 voters turned up. Most of them only had a tauliya (towel) around their faces. “But there was no point in enforcing the mask rules,” he says. “To ascertain their identity, we had to ask them to take it off anyway.”
Dubey’s district went on polls on 15 April and Dixit’s on 29 April. Dubey tested positive a few days after her duty; Dixit hasn’t got tested yet but has had a mild fever since. Both were unwilling to report to polling duty but were afraid of the consequences. “At the collection centres, the returning officer was on a loudspeaker, threatening to file an FIR against any of us not turning up for duty,” says Dixit. “An anganwadi worker from my team fainted before we set off. I refused to take her. They said, then make your own arrangements.”
So far, chief minister Yogi Adityanath has downplayed the severity of the second wave in UP. On 24 April, The Hindu reported him claiming there was “no shortage” of oxygen in the state and asked the police to seize the property of those who spread “rumours” on social media and “spoil the atmosphere”. Three days later, Amethi police filed an FIR against a 26-year-old for using Twitter to find oxygen for his dying grandfather. The man, the police claimed, was trying to “spread misinformation”.
“In my 18 years as a legislator, I’ve never seen such injustice meted out to teachers,” says Dhruv Kumar Tripathi, a member of legislative council in UP. “There’s not one district where polling officers aren’t covid patients. I know of teams of booth staff who have been forced into isolation. People are threatened with suspension, FIR, stopping salaries and forced retirement if they don’t show up. They are forced to do this.”
But Diwakar Khare, the EC’s spokesperson in UP, rejects these testimonies. “All these reports are wrong,” he says. “We’ve spoken to the respective zila parishad. They haven’t reported that.” He also rejects that there were violations of covid19 guidelines during polling. “If people had found violations of covid protocol during the elections or training, they should’ve complained. Why didn’t they?” he asks.
The election commission was bound by Allahabad High Court orders to hold the polls, he adds. “If it was so risky, why didn’t the high stop us? They didn’t stop counting or polling. Court ke aadesho ka palan karna har aadmi ki majboori hai (Every individual is bound to follow through the courts’ orders).”
“We know that things can happen after duty. But we have to do the duty, don’t we? If there’s a problem, we fix it,” he says.
On 29 April, Yogi Adityanath directed his officials to take medical help to the grassroots. The EC, meanwhile, will be pressing ahead with the ballot-count today as scheduled. On 30 April, the teachers' associations had asked its members to boycott the polls. But following the Supreme Court order on 1 May, they too did a U-turn. As long as covid19 norms are followed and teachers are backed up with adequate medical facilities, they may go ahead, the Uttar Pradesh Shikshak Sangh said in a press release.
“Going against the Supreme Court's orders would get us into trouble," explained Tripathi. "We were forced to do it... But I say this very responsibly: if covid19 has spread in the remotest corners of Uttar Pradesh today, it’s all because of the panchayat polls. We tried to defer it but nakkarkhane mein tooti ka awaaz kaun sunta hai?” (Who listens to a sane voice amidst a cacophony?)